The late Roman Empire and what came next …

There is a great deal of drama in the fairly limited ideas we have today about the passing of the Roman Empire, the consolidation of “barbarian” kingdoms, and the rise of the Islamic presence in Europe. In particular, there is the drama of the sacking of Rome and the end of Roman civilization; an extended period of ignorance and economic collapse across the continent of Europe; and the rapid spread of an intolerant Christianity. 

Two books shake up those narratives — one fairly recent and the other almost a century old. Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 appeared in 2010, while Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne appeared in Belgium in 1922. But both books challenge the most basic assumptions of common narratives of the transition from Roman civilization to the Renaissance. The “dark ages” weren’t dark, and the “Middle Ages” weren’t just a thousand-year ellipsis between Roman civilization and the Renaissance. Here I’ll examine Pirenne’s arguments, and in a later post I will look at Wickham’s recent contributions.

Henri Pirenne was one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished medieval historians and a teacher of Marc Bloch (linklink). The most surprising finding in his book is that the sack of Rome in 411 was a non-event; the “barbarian” invasions of Rome, including the Germanic wars, were almost equally inconsequential; and that it was the military threat and invasion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries that fundamentally altered the Roman order. The hinge, according to Pirenne, was control of the Mediterranean Sea. When Rome and its allies lost maritime control of the Mediterranean to Islamic fleets, its power, economic system, and cultural hegemony were finished. A major part of this crucial role for sea-born commerce was the fact that the Roman Empire depended upon cheap grain from Africa for its survival. Losing control of the Mediterranean meant losing its lifeline to bread and chocolate (or bread anyway).

Thanks to the Mediterranean, then, the Empire constituted, in the most obvious fashion, an economic unity. It was one great territory, with tolls but no custom houses. And it enjoyed the enormous advantage of a common monetary unit, the gold solidus of Constantine, containing 4˙55 grammes of fine gold, which was current everywhere. (5)

But Roman power failed to hold the Mediterranean, and Vandal king Genseric succeeded in seizing Carthage:

Succeeding where the Goths had failed, Genseric, in 427, with the aid of the Carthaginian ships, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and landed 50,000 men upon the African coast. For the Empire this was the decisive blow. The very soul of the Republic—says Salvian—was destroyed. When in 439 Genseric captured Carthage —that is, the great naval base of the West—and then, shortly afterwards, took possession of Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics, the position of the Empire in the West was completely shaken. It had lost the Mediterranean, which had hitherto been its great weapon of defence. (14)

The barbarian tribes prevailed in the West; but the structures, political institutions, and culture of Rome survived. The tribal victors were Romanized.

Thus, at the beginning of the 6th century there was not an inch of soil in the West still subject to the Emperor. At first sight the catastrophe seems enormous; so enormous that the fall of Romulus has been regarded as beginning a second act of the world-drama. But if we examine it more closely it seems less important. (For the Emperor still had a legal existence. He had abdicated nothing of his sovereignty. The old fiction of the allies was maintained. And the new upstarts themselves acknowledged his primacy. (18)

There could be no greater mistake than to suppose that the idea of the Empire disappeared after the dismemberment of the Western Provinces by the Barbarians. There is no justification for doubting that the βασιλεὺς who reigned in Constantinople still extended his theoretical authority over the whole Empire. He no longer governed, but he still reigned. And it was toward him that all men’s eyes were turned. (41)

So the replacement of direct rule by Roman governors by barbarian kings fulfilling much the same functions in much the same way presented little drama for the societies in the west in which this transformation occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries. Pirenne provides a short outline of the structure of society, which as he notes, includes the embryo of feudalism:

As for the social classes, they were the same as before. The upper class consisted of freemen (ingenui), and it included an aristocracy of great landowners (senatores). The class of free citizens properly so-called probably constituted a minority. Beneath them were the colonists, especially numerous among the Visigoths, and the liberated slaves. There were still plenty of slaves. As we shall presently see, they were mostly alien Barbarians, Anglo-Saxon or others, prisoners of war. There was also an urban population of which we shall say something presently. On the large estates there were workshops in which the women spun yarn, and in which other workers, slaves or domainal serfs, practised various crafts. But these workshops had already existed during the later centuries of the Empire. The population had retained the form which had been impressed upon it by the fiscal organization, although this had been greatly diminished by the almost complete curtailment of the military and administrative expenditure. (54)

And so — little change as a result of the “fall of the Roman Empire”:

From whatever standpoint we regard it, then, the period inaugurated by the establishment of the Barbarians within the Empire introduced no absolute historical innovation. What the Germans destroyed was not the Empire, but the Imperial government in partibus occidentis. They themselves acknowledged as much by installing themselves as foederati. Far from seeking to replace the Empire by anything new, they established themselves within it, and although their settlement was accompanied by a process of serious degradation, they did not introduce a new scheme of government; the ancient palazzo, so to speak, was divided up into apartments, but it still survived as a building. In short, the essential character of “Romania” still remained Mediterranean. (p. 104)

By contrast, Pirenne believes the Islamic assault on the Western Roman Empire in the seventh century was transformative, catastrophic, and entirely unexpected. “The Empire had never regarded this as one of its vulnerable points, nor had it ever massed there any large proportion of its military forces” (110). And: “The Arab conquest, which brought confusion upon both Europe and Asia, was without precedent. The swiftness of its victory is comparable only with that by which the Mongol Empires of Attila, Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane were established. But these Empires were as ephemeral as the conquest of Islam was lasting” (p. 112).

Pirenne is first and foremost an economic historian, and the evidence he finds most compelling is the material evidence of trade. In particular, he takes note of evidence of the availability of spices and papyrus at various times in late antiquity, and draws a crucial conclusion: trade routes between western ports and eastern sources were severed, leading to a complete disappearance of these valuable products in cities and monasteries in the west. In the sixth century these products were widely available in the West:

Papyrus was another thing that came from the East, and of which great quantities were consumed. Egypt had the monopoly of furnishing the whole Empire with the writing material in general use, parchment being reserved for special purposes. Now, both after and before the invasions the art of writing was practised throughout the West. It was a necessary constituent of social life. The juridical and administrative life of the Empire, the very functioning of the State, necessitated the practice of the art, and the same may be said of social relations. The merchants had their clerks, mercenarii litterati. Masses of papyrus must have been required by those who kept the registers of the fisc, by the notaries of the tribunals, by private correspondents, and by the monasteries. (pp. 65-66)

From the middle of the seventh century (about 650 AD) onwards the major trade between the west and the east was broken. The evidence is clear for Pirenne, beginning with papyrus:

Papyrus was the first to disappear. All the works written in the West on papyrus of which we have knowledge are of the 6th or the 7th century. Until 659–677 nothing but papyrus was used in the royal Merovingian chancellery. Then parchment made its appearance.592 A few private documents were still written on papyrus, doubtless obtained from old stocks of this material, until nearly the end of the 8th century. There is no sign of it after that. And the explanation cannot be that it was no longer manufactured, for this supposition is disproved by the beautiful papyrus documents of the 7th century in the Arab Museum of Cairo. The disappearance of papyrus in Gaul can only have been due to the fact that commerce first declined and then ceased. Parchment does not seem to have been widely used at first. Gregory of Tours, who calls it membrana, mentions it only once,593 and seems to indicate that it was manufactured by the monks for their own use. Now, we know that the habits of a chancellery are extremely tenacious. If at the close of the 7th century the royal offices had ceased to make use of papyrus it was because it was becoming very difficult to obtain any. (129)

And along with trade, the largescale traders disappeared as well:

One consequence of the suppression of the Oriental trade and maritime traffic was the disappearance of professional merchants in the interior of the country. Henceforth merchants are hardly ever mentioned in the documents of the period; any references that do occur may be understood as applying to occasional merchants. I can find no mention at this period of a single negotiator of the Merovingian type: that is, a merchant who lent money at interest, was buried in a sarcophagus, and gave of his goods to the churches and the poor. (132)

Pirenne believes that two factors explained the successes of the Islamic invasion. The first was ideological, and the second was naval. The religious ideas and values of Islam sustained a separate identity for Islamic occupiers in previously held territory; unlike the Franks or the Goths, they were not “romanized”. And the naval power of Islamic forces proved to be formidable.

That Charlemagne was able to derive so little advantage from the taking of Barcelona was due to the fact that he had no fleet. He could do nothing against the Saracens, who were in possession of Tunis, dominated the Spanish coast, and held the islands. He attempted to defend the Balearics, and won some ephemeral victories there. In 798 these islands were ravaged by the Musulmans. (120)

And with maritime and naval supremacy came the ability to dominate the Mediterranean:

So long as the Mediterranean remained Christian, it was the Oriental navigation that maintained commercial intercourse with the Occident. Syria and Egypt were its two principal centres; and these two wealthy provinces were the very first to fall under the domination of Islam. It would obviously be an error to believe that this domination put an end to all economic activity. Although there was great confusion and disorder, and although many Syrians migrated to the Occident, we must not suppose that the economic machinery collapsed. Damascus had become the first capital of the Caliphate. Spices were still imported, papyrus was still manufactured, the seaports were still active. Once they paid taxes to the conquerors, the Christians were not molested. Commerce, therefore, continued, but its direction was changed. (124)

Pirenne draws two central conclusions — the persistence of “Mediterranean” civilization for centuries following the barbarian onslaughts of the 5th century, and the crucial historical role played in the transformation of this system by the advance of Islam.

1. The Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of the Roman culture as it still existed in the 5th century, at a time when there was no longer an Emperor in the West. Despite the resulting turmoil and destruction, no new principles made their appearance; neither in the economic or social order, nor in the linguistic situation, nor in the existing institutions. What civilization survived was Mediterranean. It was in the regions by the sea that culture was preserved, and it was from them that the innovations of the age proceeded: monasticism, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the ars Barbarica, etc. The Orient was the fertilizing factor: Constantinople, the centre of the world. In 600 the physiognomy of the world was not different in quality from that which it had revealed in 400. 

2. The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. The result of this advance was the final separation of East from West, and the end of the Mediterranean unity. Countries like Africa and Spain, which had always been parts of the Western community, gravitated henceforth in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture. The Western Mediterranean, having become a Musulman lake, was no longer the thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it had always been. (228)

What is fascinating about this work for the philosophy of history is the support it provides for the idea that the past is not “given”, and the history of an epoch is never finished and complete. Instead, the practice of historical research and writing has the continuing possibility of discovering new truths about a past that we thought we understood. 

(Discussions of late Roman history have appeared elsewhere in the blog over the years (linklinklinklinklink). Here are a few useful maps ranging over the centuries of change described by Pirenne.)

AD 117
AD 300 (Emperor Diocletian)
AD 411 (Alaric sacks Rome)

AD 526
AD 815
AD 900

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